Interview with Iain Gardner on Navigations

We talked to Iain Gardner in January 2013, when he was part way through his Navigations 'residency' at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, Glasgow.

Navigations is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and is a collaboration between Animate Projects, Paintings in Hospitals, and Professor Anthony Chalmers and his teams at Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre and Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.


Can you say something about you and your practice, and how you started working in animation?

I originally became interested in animation largely because of being exposed to a variety of animation on Channel 4 during the eighties. At school I’d felt I wanted to go into acting, mainly because a lot of my childhood heroes were fictional characters. But I fared better at school in art, so I naturally gravitated towards art school. And it was during my time at art school that we visited the 1988 Bristol Animation Festival.

I was studying illustration and I ended up in the graphic design department - I went there hoping that animation would be part of the deal. They had an old 16mm film rostrum and I think we got a Paint Box system in the early ‘90s. But it was really the Bristol Animation Festival that gelled for me that I really wanted to be involved with animation - Akira, The Man Who Planted Trees, Creature Comforts, Tin Toy, Oscar Grillo - all these animators were there.

I introduced myself to Oscar, saying that I was studying in Glasgow but they weren’t teaching animation. He offered me a placement and whilst working with him in the summer I went round other animation studios in London and ended up working at Richard Williams' studio for a year.

It set me in the foundations of a traditional Disney-esque character animator, because that was very much what the Williams studio was about. But more than that, through working there with cinematographer John Leatherbarrow - he was an absolute genius of combining layers of exposures - and with Roy Nesbitt, a fantastic layout artist.

When I left Glasgow School of Art I almost kind of regressed away from character animation, because there was an artistic snobbery against it. There was a resistance towards the skills base I had picked up which I’m happy to embrace now. I kept on that path when I was at the Royal College of Art.

At the RCA they had a 13 or 15 foot rostrum in the basement and I just loved it. I just loved bi-packing, I loved doing camera moves and table moves. The idea that the image the eye receives only exists on the film frame through a combination of exposures. In my second year I made an experimental documentary. It meant that I could do figurative, drawn work in an experimental way. I wasn’t concerned with establishing a character’s motivations and all the rest of the trappings of narrative.

After college I felt a bit left behind. It seemed everybody else had landed on their feet, having played to their strengths whilst at the RCA, whereas I had all but avoided my studio training and ignored the character animation aspects of it.

But then, The Tannery is emphatically in that narrative, character based tradition…

Yes - but that’s because, after seeing all my peers at the Royal College of Art land on their feet, I changed tack and embraced character animation! I suddenly went, “Well if I’d actually displayed what I knew, or experimented with those traditional techniques, I might have actually moved on as quickly as everybody else.” Not to detract from the originality of the concepts we all explore at the RCA; that area is foremost for anyone’s time there, just post graduation, people tend to focus on the commercial potential of the work. I’m glad I took risks at the RCA though, as everyone is encouraged to do there.

I was a Channel 4 Animator in Residence at the BFI, where I elaborated every single trick that Dick Williams had taught me! He was obsessed with breaking the ‘studio’ conventions of drawn animation. If you went to an established studio you’d be told, “Well don’t animate stripes because it’s too difficult and it strobes and it does all this sort of stuff. Don’t animate spots because it’s impossible.”

So I made Akbar’s Cheetah, a film about a man who wore striped clothes and kept cheetahs. I didn’t use any outlines - the animation all came through the texture or through the pattern.

I maybe swung to the other extreme in focusing on those technical aspirations at the expense of narrative development. The script is not constructed in such a way that you relax as an audience member. You just have to go with the flow of the animation.

Do you think that’s a failing or is that simply what you were bringing an experimental approach to more traditional product?

I’d like to think so. And I was so excited to display the animation credentials that I maybe ran a wee bit ahead of locking down the story.

Was the displaying those animation credentials about wanting to work in the industry?

No - it wasn’t a showreel piece. People at TVC, where I was working at the time, said, “We don’t do this. We don’t do spots and stripes.” So it was more a case of wanting to establish a voice within the kind of auteur scene, because that’s what peers had managed to do instantly on graduation from the Royal College of Art. I think people still identify me with Akbar’s Cheetah.

So from that perspective it worked. The BBC had been doing a series of Canterbury Tales with some success - they did well at festivals and the BAFTAs. Joanna Quinn had directed The Wife of Bath which got Oscar nominated. I think the BBC where quite keen to follow up on it and I’d just finished Akbah’s Cheetah when that decision was made and I got commissioned.

That kind of commissioned, auteur filmmaking still relates with more to a commercial animation practice, but there’s the other aspect and element of your practice which comes into play in Navigations which is emphatically about animation as a visual arts practice. I wondered how you navigate those different elements of your practice?

Well, I tend to relate this to the debate between creationism and evolution! When you ask a lot of people, “Why do you want to do animation?” they say, “Well it’s to play God and it’s to have this kind of guiding influence over a set of characters that I’ve brought into this environment.” That to some degree is an essential part of making a scripted narrative film. You are entirely in control of that environment.

I would define myself as an atheist, so the comparisons in animation to this kind of religious overtone of being a creator, it made me think, “Well, what’s the antithesis?” The obvious antithesis of creation is just to have an environment in which you don’t know the outcome.

I took that approach quite early on. I think the first successful animation I ever did was just to go to Edinburgh Zoo with a stack of animation paper and I just did rapid fire drawings of polar bears and then combined the studio practice that I’d learnt at Dick Williams - to take those spontaneous drawings and then make interstitial drawings to create a moving sequence. The beauty that came out of it was that I didn’t know where it was going. When I went from key frame to key frame, I didn’t know what was happening.

I’d done technical animation things at college and I’d worked with Dick Williams but I think the polar bear thing was a breakthrough because it was like a breath of fresh air. I did try and incorporate that spontaneity within my RCA graduation film, but because of the kind of nonplussed reaction I got, I never really pursued it again until recently - with a commission for Shrewsbury’s redeveloped Music Hall depicting 600 million years of geological time, appropriately enough!

It is an evolutionary approach. A very simplistic understanding of evolution: just to have something operating within an environment. So maybe there is still a bit of a God complex in it, because you establish what the environment is that your animation practice is going to evolve within. But nonetheless, having said, “This is A and that’s B,” you don’t know what the end result is going to be.

It’s not like when you make a film like The Tannery where you’ve planned out every single shot and if anything at the end of it you’re going, “I wish that could have been better,” because you had a plan for it and you knew that certain aspects of it should have been better. But then there’s the other way of working which incorporates accident and surprise.

Might the difference be between a way of working that involves ‘development’, which is the way that you make a film like The Tannery, and ‘process’, which is categorising that creative activity in a slightly different way?

Yes. I know how animation works. I know that you need X number of drawings for it to register on the screen. So instead of preconceiving what that is going to be, my process is going to be to go out and draw something which takes my interest. I went to a zoo because I knew I could observe movement there.

Well, movement is the essence of animation!

Except - to counter that - I could have moved myself - gone to an architectural location and drawn every five metres.

What interested you about the Navigations project?

My initial response was just what a fantastic opportunity it would be to have an access to people at the cutting edge of scientific research. I naively thought, “Oh there’s a group of people that you’ll get to meet and they’re curing cancer.”

But with a growth of cancer in the brain, you’re very quickly cautioned that it’s non-curable. It’s in the nature of the way it develops and grows, there’s nothing you can really do to stop it.

My response was, I have interests in certain social concerns and environmental concerns, so to actually be welcomed into a working community of scientists –

Your immediate reply to us was with that Norman McLaren image of his head - where McLaren doodled on an X-ray of his skull - and you were drawing those parallels between the mechanics, as it were, of treatment and animation. How did that change once you started meeting the actual scientists?

Well, going back to the different processes you get into, a great appeal is that you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But I’m a big fan of Norman McLaren’s work and I knew about this X-Ray that he had and he doodled on it and all the rest of it. I’ve had to resist my re-conception of “Oh this is about people and disease in the head so let’s take that picture of McLaren and start from there.”

I’ve had to blinker my eyes and go, “Don’t think about that image!”

What has really fascinated me - which I didn’t expect when I got into the lab and got speaking to the team - was the process of investigation of biology and cell structure and cell growth and everything else. The language that the lab team used in terms of how they studied cancer cells struck a chord with the language that I’m used to in traditional senses of animation. Not the animation process of how do you make something move, but the technology that allows that movement to be seen.

Early on, one of the researchers in Glasgow was showing me gel counts, where basically they’ve put so many cancer cells in petri dishes. An equal amount of cancer cells in petri dishes, and then exposed each petri dish to a different duration of radiation. Then they see how much the cancer grows. It immediately struck a chord with me that pre-digital we used to take our artwork to the rostrum camera and we used to do different lighting tests and we used to do different exposure tests.

It seems to me it’s not so much a matter of you saying there are these similarities between an artistic practice and a science practice, but that you’re taking how you understand your discipline to… they do theirs, yes.

A fear has been that in relating to what they do in terms of animation practice there’s a danger that that trivialises what they’re doing. As an animator you’re not really improving anyone’s quality of life in terms of health or life expectancy. But then there is an argument that on a cultural level you do improve people’s quality of life. I think there’s something enriching about seeing moving image and narrative and the folklore in animation.

I have to be careful, especially as we have to work towards a kind of end point. But at every single level there’s a parallel with animation. Their method of studying protein samples is by using photographic techniques to contact print whether or not the protein has reacted to a drug - to see what the drug is doing by using a photographic process, it’s very similar to bi-packing.

I don’t think it’s trivialising. I think it’s taking your understanding and discipline and applying it to an interpretation.

Part of it is to try and interpret for people outside of the laboratory, people outside of science, but there’s a danger that if I’m referring too much to processes of animation that’s also something which is outside people’s understanding.

Well, you’re not making a documentary; you’re not seeking to explain - I assuming you don’t understand the science…

I don’t! I’m just about getting my head round hypoxia which is starving a cell of oxygen. It sounds sensible - if you want to kill cancer, starve it of oxygen, because no cell grows without oxygen. But there is the fundamental problem. You can’t starve a cancer cell of oxygen without starving a human being of oxygen. So it’s a nonstarter in terms of a treatment.

And you do begin to kind of get the depth of a term. But still the drugs that they’re applying to proteins or to cancers and all this, a lot of it is over my head. But you get what they’re doing - they’re switches. They’re switching on and off.

I may be being very simple about it. I’m trying to parallel – or I’m finding what I’m doing is paralleling - what they do with my understanding of traditional two dimensional animation practices, as a way of draining information from them I guess.


Distilling, yes.

Is it distilling information or is it distilling what they’re about?

What they’re doing.

And why it matters to those of us who it might affect or – and the idea of it affects us all doesn’t it? Because we’ve all got brains.

Yes. It’s not just that we’re all mortal but we’re all actually in the process of fighting cancer in our bodies as we breathe. That’s a bit freaky but that’s the truth of it. There are many things that can trigger off the cancers inherent in our bodies. So yes, it does kind of affect us.

Isn’t another aspect that you bring to it a kind of humanity? Is that perhaps a difference between the disciplines? I think with the clinical that’s very clear, how the clinical practice is humane. But I haven’t been to the lab.

The lab is quite removed from patients. They’re scientists.

I think the lab technicians are encouraged to occasionally go over to the clinical side to see what’s happening, as I have been. But actually, much like myself in the process of going through the residency, there’s a slight reluctance to engage with patients. Not to say they wouldn’t have good bedside manner, but it’s not their job. They’re completely aware of what these patients’ chances are so it would be a difficult emotional commitment, even just going in for ten minutes.

What they’re doing is not immediately effective for whatever patient they meet. Patients are getting the best possible advice and treatment that previous research has led to, because what the lab staff are now doing is pushing it forward. Ten years ago, from my limited understanding, if you were going in for radiotherapy, you were basically just being blasted with radiation. They’d find a cancer and you’d be stuck in a rig and you’d have radiation fired at your brain and you would have lots of side effects which to a lesser degree still happen, as we can’t completely isolate the tumours yet with such treatment. But the lab work is helping focus down more and more on where the actual cancer is. You’re never going to get 100% just hit the cancer, but equally you’re not randomly crap shooting around the cancer and destroying brain cells. It’s about isolating it.

The other thing that I think I’m starting to understand is that they’re trying to find a biological way of actually stopping the cancer triggering in the first place. At the end of the day, we’ve all got the potential for them to develop.

What do you think your job is?

It’s visualising it in some way. It’s not a documentary, but it is capturing the essence of this quest in a sense.